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Meryl McMaster's haunting images fuse the past with the present

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Two pairs of eyes look out at the viewer. One pair belongs to the artist. The other, to a Native person pictured over 100 years ago by photographer Edward Curtis. With Meryl McMaster’s hand, the two faces are merged into one, creating a startling double vision that looks both forward and back in time. 

The work is part of McMaster’s "Ancestral" series, now on view at Bockley Gallery. On the east wall of the gallery, we see the images in which McMaster served as her own model. The artist projected scans of Curtis’ photographs onto her own face, and then took a photograph of the effect. The result is a fused, ghostly image.

Curtis, who coincidentally is featured in the Minnesota Museum of American Art’s current show, “American Art: It’s Complicated,” was called an “internationally known authority on the history of the North American Indian,” according his 1952 obituary in the New York Times. Patronized by the likes of J.P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, and the kings of England and Belgium, Curtis spent 30 years photographing and filming Native Americans, as well as recording Native languages and music. His magnum opus, North American Indian, contains 2,200 original photographs, plus transcriptions of language and music.

But Curtis has been criticized in recent years for manipulating his photographs, providing costumes for photo shoots and removing indicators of Western culture, such as wagons, clocks, and parasols. Like some of his contemporaries (artists, anthropologists, photographers), Curtis projected onto his subjects European notions of a vanishing race untouched by Western society. In reality, many Native people were living in very poor conditions on reservations.

McMaster’s juxtaposed images do two things. On the one hand, they create a dialogue between a contemporary artist and her “ancestors,” metaphorically stepping into the souls of Native individuals living in the late 19th century. On the other, the photographs poke apart the stereotypical narrative of a race of people frozen in time. After all, Native people still live today — they didn’t vanish at all.

Sometimes it’s difficult to discern which details belong to which subject. The eyebrows, the hair line, and other facial features meld so that both are ever present. The adornments worn by Curtis’ original subjects — beadwork, head ornaments, scarves — hover, only half-seen in the final images.

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McMaster employed a similar process with the other pieces that are a part of the “Ancestral” series, located on the west wall of the gallery. For those works, McMaster’s father posed as the model as the artist projected George Caitlin paintings of Native Americans onto his face and photographed the final image. These colorful portraits also have an eeriness, as McMaster presses not only into the past but into the problematic ways that Native Americans have historically been portrayed.

In the back room at Bockley, you get just a taste of another more recent series that McMaster created, called “In-Between Worlds.” Shot in outdoor, natural settings, the images pop with flashes of bright colors in otherwise colorless scenes.

In Harbinger of Sudden Departures, McMaster dons steam-punk glasses, her head surrounded by a swirling nest, with black birds perched inside. Anima, meanwhile, features the artist, in white paint, covered by colorful butterflies. Dreamlike and whimsical, the images take a trip into a liminal world between waking and dreaming, symbolically describing McMaster’s own identity as someone with both Native and European roots. 

IF YOU GO:

“Meryl McMaster: Ancestral”

Through January 2

Bockley Gallery

2123 W. 21st St., Minneapolis

Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday